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Failed Suicides Leap Into Arms of Fishermen

Dark skinned and thick-muscled, Sari Ou Meu navigated his boat toward the middle of the Tonle Sap river, beneath the Japanese Friendship Bridge in northern Phnom Penh.

"This is the place where people drown when they drop from the bridge," said the 57-year-old boatman, indicating the water surface near the middle pile of the bridge.

The Muslim fisherman said he had dragged 71 people from the water in his life, with eight just this year. "But the number excludes drowned jumpers whose lives I could not save."

Most of the victims are under 30, most of them are depressed about ruined relationships or family matters, and the lives of many of them, police said, are completely in the hands of fishermen.

When Sari Ou Meu pulls suicidal people from the water, he turns them over to nearby police, who then call their parents.

Sometimes the family pays a reward, between $2.50 and $5, he said. "Sometimes they give none. It's up to them."

Thirty-two people tried to commit suicide from the bridge this year and nine succeeded, up from 27 attempts and four deaths the year before, according to the Target III Unit, which is tasked with guarding the bridge.

Lt. Un Phal, administrative head of the unit, said operations to pull jumpers from the water rely solely on the fishermen. The unit has no resources to save people from drowning, he said.

"What we can do to help is have our guards on the bridge watch and stop those who are attempting to jump off the bridge," Un Phal said. "If they have already falled into the water, their lives are in the hands of the fishermen."

Most of the people who jump from the bridge say they had suffered a break-up in a relationship, he said.

"Most of the people who failed at a suicide attempt tell me they wanted to kill themselves because their lover left them," he said. Others are angry at their parents, and some people attempt suicide when they learn they have HIV.

Chhim Sotheara, managing director of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organization, said many people attempt suicide because they suffer depression, which can be caused by the loss of beloved things.

The first stages of depression, he said, include sadness, thinking too much, sleep loss, and a loss of interest in regular activities. Those with symptoms should seek help from friends, relatives or experts, Chhim Sotheara said.